Former League player Darren Higgins. Photo: Supplied
Darren Higgins is a battled-hardened man. He played professional NRL with teams including St George and Cronulla for 13 years, and for eight of those years worked full-time as a coal miner at night.
But after years toughing it through the physical knocks that come with professional sports and mining work, it was depression that felled him.
“I just woke up one day and I just broke down,” Higgins says of his descent into depression three years ago. “You don’t realise you actually have it until it’s too late.”
Men, and particularly those working in manual labour, represent a huge proportion of Australia’s suicide epidemic.
Higgins says the double pressures of trying to provide for their families and a culture where men fear speaking about emotions makes it particularly difficult for working-class men.
“Especially in those days, it was full old-school, you never really spoke about those things,” he says. “It’s like it’s weakness.”
When suicidal thoughts took hold of him, it was overwhelming.
“You become a recluse,” he says. “You don’t want to talk about it with anybody. People can say ‘get help’ but you aren’t thinking about that – you aren’t thinking about your beautiful kids, or about your family or your work colleagues, you aren’t even thinking about yourself.
“It is the only thing you can think about.”
New research funded by the mental health charity Mates In Construction reveals the shocking toll suicide has taken on that industry. Using data from the National Coronial Information System it has found nearly 50 men working in construction die by suicide each year in NSW alone.
Mates in Construction NSW chief executive Peter McClelland there were a number of factors that contributed to the high suicide rates.
“Oftentimes, they are affected by relationship breakdown, pressures of work and job insecurity … most significantly is the stigma that surrounds getting help,” he said. “We know that construction workers are 30 per cent more likely to die by suicide than other men, and apprentices are more than two times more likely to take their lives than other young men.”
Study co-author Chris Doran, a health economist from Central Queensland University, said that for every suicide there were many more attempts, with many leaving the men completely incapacitated.
“It’s this hidden problem that’s going on in society,” he says.
In 2012 alone, his research estimated, there were 107 self-harm attempts resulting in full incapacity and 523 self-harm attempts resulting in a short absence from work.
The majority of the $356 million cost would be borne by governments, although some costs fell on industry as well.
“Generally, having a job provides some level of protective effect from suicide, but there are different risks for different industries,” Professor Doran says.
Research shows that people working in manual labour are particularly at risk – with the risk growing even further during times of economic uncertainty.
Darren Higgins now works on the wharves, and believes more needs to be done to spread the word among men – and children – before they get sick and have trouble reaching out, something Mates in Construction does through training programs.
But he also has a message for men who are suffering: you are not weak.
“There’s this big bravado thing that you have got to be a man, but we’re all human, we all bleed,” he says. “But now people are talking about it more … where it used to be seen as weakness for men, now you can talk about it.”
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Mates in Construction: http://www.matesinconstruction.org.au/
Mensline: 1300 78 99 78